What Does “Sexual Success” Mean?

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself what a successful sexual experience is?

It’s an important question because how you answer it says a lot about your attitudes and beliefs about sex. And that has a big impact on the kinds of experiences you’re creating and the sexual relationships you build.

One of the more common definitions of “sexual success,” at least for male/female dynamics, is intercourse that leads to orgasm. And while the inclusion of a woman’s orgasm in that formula is an improvement over definitions that leave it out, this way of thinking about sexual success is still wrapped up in the goal-oriented and limited model that so often results in embarrassment or shame.

Take, for example, what happens if someone is taking a blood pressure medication that causes him to not get erections. Or if someone has endometriosis or another health issue that makes vaginal penetration uncomfortable or painful. Or if someone doesn’t orgasm reliably from intercourse. Or if they’re facing emotional or relationship difficulties that make it hard to relax into pleasure. For a lot of people in these kinds of situations, their sexual difficulties are magnified by their belief that they’re failing at sex.

One response to that is to push harder for a quick fix or a pill or a magic recipe that will allow for the kind of sex that they imagine will solve their problems. I once had a client who came to me because he wasn’t getting erections and he wanted to know if Viagra or a cock ring would help. It turned out that he was under an incredible amount of stress- he’d lost his job, his house was in foreclosure, and he and his wife were talking about divorce. But it was the fact that he wasn’t getting erections that finally prompted him to get help.

He had no idea that stress can cause erection difficulties. It makes sense- when your fight or flight response kicks in, that’s probably not a good time to be having sex. And your body doesn’t care if the adrenaline is coming from being chased by a hungry tiger or from a looming work deadline. In fact, I don’t consider what this man was facing to be “erectile dysfunction” since his body was actually functioning just right, even if it was inconvenient. Unfortunately, his ideas around sexual success (not to mention the Act Like a Man Box) had him convinced he was failing at sex.

It’s not just men who face this, of course. A lot of women in similar situations fall into this trap, too. And while many queer folks have redefined what sex means to them, others are still convinced that a particular sex act or a specific response makes sex successful. Another client I worked with had a very idiosyncratic sexual response and she needed the right combination of sensations to orgasm. For her, oral sex was pleasurable but it wasn’t ever going to be on the list. Her girlfriend, however, was determined to make her orgasm from oral sex. She was convinced that her oral skills were top-notch and that they should be enough. The two of them were on the verge of breaking up because they each felt like they were failing at sex, when what they needed to do was rethink that success meant.

One way that I know that a client is stuck in their definition of sexual success is that they talk about how sex “should be.” As in: I should be able to get an erection when I want to, or I should be able to make her orgasm from oral sex. Any time I hear the word “should,” I look for the underlying shame because it’s almost always there, and sexual shame is often intertwined with the idea of success or failure.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of the trap of sexual success. All you need to do is redefine what it means. My personal definition is that a sexual experience is successful if everyone has a smile on their face at the end of it. It doesn’t matter what sex acts you do, and it doesn’t even matter if orgasms happen. If you both/all have smiles when you’re done, that’s a successful time. Imagine how much easier sex would be if more people could come to it from that perspective.

Of course, there are further nuances to this. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not be smiling after sex. They might not have had their needs or desires attended to. Something might have happened that triggered them. They could have had some physical discomfort or pain. In those situations, I still wouldn’t consider it a failure if the experience became an opportunity for growth. Scientists often say that an experiment is only a failure if you don’t learn anything from it. So even if a specific sexual encounter doesn’t result in smiles, it’s still a success if you take the experience and use it to build towards the next time.

Full of WinWhen you shift your thinking around this, it opens up a lot more room to play and have fun in bed (or wherever else you happen to be). If something comes up and one kind of sex isn’t available, there are still lots of other ways to enjoy yourselves, and they all count as a win. That takes the pressure off and makes more room for you to have a great time.

Rethinking what sexual success means to you can take some practice, especially when feelings of embarrassment or shame arise. It’s not always an easy path to follow, but it’s worth the effort. As difficult as it can be, the payoff is happier, healthier relationships and more fun sex. As a sex coach, I help a lot of people find their way there and I’d be happy to talk with you about how I can be of service to you. If you’re feeling stuck, check out my sex coaching site and get in touch!

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5 Responses so far.

  1. ThisOtherGuy says:

    “All you need to do is redefine what it means”

    Not always particularly easy. Take my case. I’m a 32 year old heterosexual male virgin but have done and am occasionally doing some things besides PIV (why that hasn’t happened is a very complex issue not necessarily related to this question). When sex positive people tell me I’m not a virgin anymore because I’m having some sexual contact occasionally that’s fine, and I appreciate their attemps to redefine so it sounds nicer for me, so I can also feel some sexual success. But making things sound nicer won’t always make the problem disappear and it also won’t always change personal standards of success – certainly not when the ideas about the meaning of certain concepts are as deeply ingrained as in this case.

  2. Jackson says:

    Two thoughts permeate through my consciousness as I read this.  The first is on sexuality and the nature of new experiences.  That is, stretching the limits of experience through breaking new boundaries.  The second is how I have been satisfied through finding conclusion, for lack of a more complete term, in a new and different way.

    Though these things sound similar, there is a distinction that I will do my best to explain.
    Perhaps more so for women, our first sexual act is that of a threshold being crossed.  Without being too vague nor specific, this moment is defining and can represent the goal in future sexual experiences.  Needless to say, this enters into the realm of perversion.  There is only one virginity in the strictest sense, but I find that there is a whole world of cherries to pop.  Taken to its most extreme, a new taboo would need to be violated in order find success in each and every experience.
    As for finding conclusion in a new way.  I have found myself pulling away from the virginal pursuits and into a different uncharted territory.  For example, finding conclusion without emission.  At first, this seems contrary, but I had a profound experience with one such situation.
    In both of these situations there is the shared notion of something new; but there is also the looming threat of finite experience.  It is a factor in my own journey, but it cannot be enough to incorporate the entirety of “sexual success”.

    Putting these aside and focusing on the topic at hand, I think it must be something which can be understood in part, but lacks a complete definition.  It seems that in order for an experience to hit the mark, there must be unknowns.  As if exploration, a lack of certainty, and mutual discovery is the core of the experience.

  3. Liza says:

    Great article! What about not feeling sexually successful when oral sex does not reach ejaculation for a man?

  4. Liza, that’s actually a lot more common than many people realize. For some men, it’s not quite the right kind of stimulation to result in orgasm. For others, they might not be able to let go and relax because they’re worried about going too deep and making it uncomfortable for their partner. But whatever the reason, that doesn’t mean that oral sex can’t be lots of fun! Just know that for some guys, it’s part of the journey rather than the end point. 😉


  5. […] the great Charlie Glickman has posted a lovely piece on redefining sexual success. Perhaps all those forced-birthers should give it a read so they can prepare themselves for their […]

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